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The God Stealer


Fransico Sionil Jose Sam and Christie said, “Sure, you are welcome to it. Just make sure we
They were the best of friends and that was possible because they have some left when we get Ifugao.” He stopped, brought out a bottle
worked in the same office and both were young and imbued with a of White Label – one of the four – in the bag which also contained bars
freshness in outlook. Sam Christie was twenty – eight and his Filipino of candy and cartons of cigarettes and matches for the natives. He
assistant, Philip Latak, was twenty – six and was – just as Sam had been removed the tinfoil and handed the bottle to his companion.
at the Agency before he assumed his post – intelligent and industrious.
Phil raised it to his lips and made happy gurgling sounds. “Rice wine – I
“That is to be expected,” the official whom Sam replaced explained hope there’s still a jar around when we get to my grandfather’s. He
“because Philip is Ifugao and you don’t know patience until you have couldn’t be as seriously sick as my brother wrote. As long as he has
seen the rice terraces his ancestors built.” wine he will live. Hell, it’s not as potent as this, but it can knock out a
man, too.”
“You will find,” Sam Christie was also told, “that the Igorots, like the
Ilocanos, no matter how urbanized they already are, entertain a sense Sam Christie kidded his companion about the weather. They had
of inferiority. Not Philip. He is proud of his being Ifugao. He talks about arrived in the summer capital the previous day and the bracing air and
it the first chance he gets.” the scent of pine had invigorated him. “It’s like New England in the
spring,” he said. “In winter, when it really gets cold, I can still go around
Now, on this December dawn, Sam Christie was on his way to Ifugao quite naked by your standards. I sent home a clipping this week,
with his native assistant. It was last month in the Philippines and in a something in the Manila papers about it being chilly. And it was only
matter of days he would return to Boston for that leave which he had 68! My old man will get a kick out of that.”
not had in years.
“But it’s really cold!” Philip Latak said ruefully. He handed the bottle
The bus station was actually a narrow sidestreet which sloped down to back to Sam Christie, who took a swig, too. “You don’t know how good
a deserted plaza, one of the many in the summer capital. Sam could it is to have that along. Do you know how much it costs nowadays?
make out the shapes of the stone buildings huddled, it seemed, in the Twenty – four bucks.”
cold, their narrow windows shuttered and the frames advertising Coca
– Cola above their doorways indistinct in the dark. “It’s cheaper at the commissary,” Sam Christie said simply. He threw
his chest out, flexed his lean arms and inhaled. He wore a white, dacron
Philip Latak seemed listless. They had been in the station for over half shirt with the sleeves rolled up.
an hour and still there was no bus. He zipped his old suede jacket up to
his neck. It had been four years that he had lived in Manila and during “I’m glad you didn’t fall for those carvings in Manila,” Phil said after a
all these years he had never gone home. Now, the cold of the pine – while.
clad mountains seemed to bother him. He turned to Sam and, with a
hint of urgency – “One favour, Sam. Let me take a swig.”
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A Grecian urn, a Japanese sword, a Siamese mask – and now, an Ifugao shimmery sky and endless ranges also draped with this mist that
God. The Siamese mask,” Sam spoke in a monotone, “it was really a swirled, pervasive and alive, to their very faces. And Sam Christie, in
bargain. A student was going to Boston. He needed the dollars, so I told the midst of all this whiteness and life, was quiet.
him he could get the money from my father. Forty dollars – and the
mask was worth more than that.” Someone in the bus recognized Philip and he called out in the native
tongue, “Ip – pig!” the name did not jell at once and the man shouted
Now, the gray buildings around them emerged from the dark with again. Philip turned to the man and acknowledged the greeting and to
white, definite shapes. The east was starting to glow and more people Sam he explained: “That’s my name up here – and that’s why I was
had arrived with crates and battered rattan suitcases. In the chill most baptized Philip.”
of them were quiet. A coffee shop opened along the street with a great
deal of clatter and in its warm, golden light Sam Christie could see the Sam Christie realized there were many things he did not know about
heavy, peasant faces, their happy anticipation as the steaming cups Phil. “Tell me more about your grandfather,” he said.
were pushed before them.
“There isn’t much worth knowing about him,” Philip said.
The bus finally came and Sam Christie, because he was a foreigner, was
given the seat of honour, next to the driver. It was an old bus, with “How old is he?”
woven rattan seats and side entrances that admitted not only people,
but cargo, fowl, and pigs. They did not wait long, for the bats filled up “Eighty or more.”
quickly with government clerks going to their posts and hefty Igorots,
in their bare feet or with canvas shoes who sat in the rear, talking and “He must be a character,” Sam Christie said.
smelling of earth and strong tobacco.
“And the village doctor,” Philip said. “Mumbo – jumbo stuff, you know.
After the bus had started, for the first time during their stay in Baguio, I was taken ill when I was young – something I ate, perhaps. I had to go
Sam Christie felt sleepy. He dozed, his head knocking intermittently to the Mission Hospital – and that evening he came and right there in
against the hard edge of his seat and in that limbo between the ward he danced to drive away the evil spirit that had gotten hold
wakefulness and sleep he hurtled briefly to his home in Boston, to that of me.”
basement study his father had tidied up, in it the mementoes of his
years with the Agency. Sam had not actually intended to serve in the “And the doctor?”
Agency, but he had always wanted to travel and, after college, a career
with the Agency offered him the best chance of seeing the world. “He was broad – minded,” Philip said, still laughing. “They withstood it,
the gongs and stamping.”
Soon it was light. The bus hugged the thin line of a road that was carved
on the mountainside. Pine trees studded both sides of the road and “It must be have been quite a night.”
beyond their green, across the ravines and the gray socks, was
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“Hell, I was never so embarrassed in my life,” Philip Latak said, shaking He mused on whether or not these terraces were necessary, since he
his head, “Much later, thinking of it,” his voice became soft and a smile knew that beyond these hand – carved genealogical monuments were
lingered in his thick – lidded eyes, “I realized that the old man never plains that could be had for the asking. “And you say that these
did that thing again for anyone, not even when his own son – my father terraces do not produce enough food for the people?”
– lay dying.”
Philip Latak turned quizzically to him. “Hell, if I can live here, would I go
Now they were in the heart of the highlands. The pine trees were to Manila?”
bigger, loftier than those in Baguio, and most were wreathing with
hoary moss. Sunflowers burst on the slopes, bright yellow against the Their destination was no more than a cluster of houses beyond the
grass. The sun rode over the mountains and the rocks shone – and over gleaming tiers. A creek ran through the town, white with froth among
everything the mist, as fine as powder, danced. the rocks, and across the creek, beyond the town, was a hill, on top of
which stood the Mission – four red – roofed buildings – the chapel, the
The bus swung around the curves and it paused, twice or thrice to allow school, the hospital, and residence.
them to take coffee. It was past noon when they reached the feral
fringes of the Ifugao country. The trip had not been exhausting, for “That’s where I first learned about Jesus Christ and scotch,” Philip Latak
there was much to see. Sam Christie, gazing down at the ravines, at the said. “They marked me for success.” Another peal of laughter.
geometric patterns of the sweet – potato patches there and the crystal
waters that cascaded down the mountainsides and the streams below, The bus shuddered into first gear as it dipped down the gravel road and
remembered the Alpine roads of Europe and those of his own New in a while they were in the town, along its main street lined with
England – and about these he talked effusively. “See how vegetation wooden frame houses. It conformed with the usual small – town
changes. The people, too. The mountains,” Sam Christie said, “breed arrangement and was properly palisaded with stores, whose fronts
independence. Mountain people are always self – reliant.” were plastered with impieties of soft – drink and patent – medicine
signs. And in the stores were crowds of people, heavy – jowled Ifugaos
Then, at turn of a hill, they came, without warning upon the water – in G – string and tattered Western coats that must have reached them
filled rice terraces stretched out in the sun and laid out tier upon in relief packages from the United States. The women wore the native
shining tier to the very summit of the mountains. And in the face of gay blouses and skirts.
that achievement, Sam Christie did not speak.
The two travellers got down from the bus and walked to one of the
After a while he nudged Philip. “Yeah, the terraces are colossal.” And bigger houses, a shapeless wooden building with rusting tin proof and
he wished he had expressed his admiration better, for he had sounded cheap, printed curtains. It was a boarding house and a small curio store
so empty and trite. was on the ground floor, together with the usual merchandise of
country shops: canned sardines and squid, milk, soap, matches,
The first view of the terraces left in Sam’s mind a kind of stupefaction kerosene, a few bolts and twine.
which, when it had cleared, was replaced by a sense of wastefulness.
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The landlady, an acquaintance of Philip Latak, assigned them a bare


room, which overlooked the creek and the mountain terraced to the “I know, sir,” Sadek said.
very summit.
Philip Latak held his brother by the shoulder. “You see, Sam,” he said,
“We could stay in my brother’s place,” Philip Latak reiterated “my brother dislikes me. Like my grandfather, he feels that I shouldn’t
apologetically as they brought their things up, “but there is no have left this place, that I should rot here. Hell, everyone knows the
plumbing there.” terraces are good for the eye, but they can’t produce enough for the
stomach.”
Past noon, after a plentiful lunch of fried highland rice and venison,
they headed for the footpath that broke from the street and “That’s not a nice thing to say,” Sam said warily, not wanting to be
disappeared behind a turn of hillside. The walk to Philip Latak’s village drawn into a family quarrel.
itself was not far from the town and wherever they turned the terraces
were sheets of mirror that dogged them. “But it’s true,” Philip Latak said with a nervous laugh. “My brother
dislikes me. All of them here dislike me. They think that by living in
The village was no more than ten houses in a valley, which were no Manila for a few years I have forgotten what is to be an Ifugao. I can’t
different from the other Ifugao homes. They stood on stilts and all their help it, Sam. I like it down there. Hell, they will never understand. My
four posts were crowned with circular rat guards. A lone house roofed grandfather – do you know that on the day I left he followed me to the
with tin stood at one end of the village. “My brother’s,” Philip said. town, to the bus, pleading with me and at the same time scolding me?
He said I’d get all his terraces. But I like it down there, Sam,” he threw
“Shall I bring the candies out now?” Sam asked. He had, at Phil’s his chest and yawned.
suggestion, brought them along, together with matches and cheap
cigarettes, for his “private assistance program.” Unmindful of his younger brother’s ribbing Sadek dragged in some
battered chairs from within the house and set them in the living room.
Sadek, Philip’s brother, was home. “You have decided to visit us after He was a farmer and the weariness of working the terraces showed in
all” he greeted Philip in English and with a tinge of sarcasm. He was his massive arms, in his sunburned and stolid face. His wife, who was
older and spoke with authority. “I thought the city had won you so an Ifugao like him, with high cheekbones and firm, dumpy legs, came
completely that you have forgotten this humble place and its humble out and served them Coca – Cola. Sam Christie accepted the drink,
people.” washed it down his throat politely, excruciatingly, for it was the first
time that he took warm Coke and it curdled his tongue.
Then, turning to Sam, Sadek said, “I must apologize, sir, for my brother,
for his bringing you to this poor house. His deed embarrasses us...” Sadek said, “Grandfather had a high fever and we all thought the end
was near. I didn’t want to bother you, but the old man said you should
“We work in the same office,” Sam said simply, feeling uneasy at come. He is no longer angry with you for leaving, Ip – pig. He has
hearing the speech. forgiven you...”
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know you, Ip – pig. You speak our tongue, you have our blood – but
“There’s nothing to forgive, my brother,” Philip Latak said, “but if he you are a stranger nevertheless.”
wants to he can show his forgiveness by opening his wine jar. Is he
drinking still?” “See what I mean, Sam?” Philip Latak said. He strode to the door.
Beyond the betel – nut plams in the yard, up a sharp incline, was his
“He has abandoned the jar for some time now,” Sadek said, “but now grandfather’s house. It stood on four stilts like all the rest and below
that you are here, he will drink again.” its roof were the bleached skulls of goats, dogs, pigs, and carabaos
which the old man had butchered in past feats. He had the most
Then the children started stealing in, five of them with grime on their number of skulls in the village to show his social position. Now new
faces, their feet caked with mud, their bellies shiny and skulls would be added to this collection.
disproportionately rounded and big. They stood, wide – eyed, near the
sagging wall. The tallest and the oldest, a boy of thirteen or twelve, “Well, he will recognize and I won’t be a stranger to him. Come,” Philip
Sadek pointed out as Philip’s namesake. Latak turned to his friend, “let us see the old man.”

Philip bent down and thrust a fistful of candy at his nephews and They toiled up the hill, which was greasy although steps had been
nieces. They did not move. They hedged closer to one another, their gouged out on it for easier climbing. Before going up the slender rungs
brows, their simple faces empty of recognition, of that simple spark of the old house Philip Latak called his grandfather twice. Sam Christie
that would tell him, Ip – Pig, that he belonged here. He spoke in the waited under the grass marquee that extended above the doorway. He
native tongue, but that did not help either. The children held their couldn’t see what transpired inside and there was no invitation for him
scrawny hands behind them and stepped back until their backs were to come up. However, some could hear, Philip speaking in his native
pressed against the wall. tongue and there was also a crackled, old voice, high pitched with
excitement and pleasure. And, listening to the pleasant sounds of the
“Hell, you are all my relatives, aren’t you?” he asked. Turning to Sam, homecoming, he smiled and called to mind the homecomings, he, too,
“Give it to them. Maybe, they like you better.” had known, and he thought how the next vacation would be, his father
and his mother at the Back Bay station, the luggage in the back seat,
His open palm brimming with the tinsel – wrapped sweets, Sam strode and on his lap this wooden idol which he now sought. But after a while,
to the oldest, to Philip’s namesake, and tousled the youngster’s black, the visions he conjured were dispelled. The effusion within the hut had
matted hair. He knelt, pinched the cheeks of the dirty child next to the subsided into some sort of spirited talking and Philip was saying
oldest and placed a candy in his small hand. In another moment it was “Americano – Americano.” Sam heard the old man raise his voice, this
all noise, the children scrambling over the young American and about time in anger and not in pleasure. Then silence, a rustling within the
the floor, where the candy had spilled. house, the door stirring and Philip easing himself down the ladder, on
his face a numbed, crestfallen look. And, without another word, he
Philip Latak watched them, and above the happy sounds, the squeals hurried down the hill, the American behind him.
of children, Sadek said, “You see now that even your relatives do not
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Philip Latak explained later on the way back to the town: “I had asked Fransiscan, and one consolation of his assignment was its meagre
him where we could get a god and he said he didn’t know. And when I similarity to San Francisco.
told him it was for an American friend he got mad. He never liked
strangers, Sam. He said they took everything away from him – “In the afternoons,” he said with nostalgia, “when the mist drifts in and
tranquillity, me. Hell, you can’t do anything to an old man, Sam. We starts to wrap the terraces and the hills, I’m reminded of the ocean fog
shouldn’t have bothered with him at all. Now, tell me, have I spoiled which steals over the white hills of San Francisco – and then I feel like
your first day here?” I’m home.”

Sam objected vehemently. They had finished lunch and were in the living room of the Mission,
sipping coffee, while Philip Latak was in the kitchen, where he had gone
“The old man wants a feast tomorrow night. My bienvenida of course.” to joke with old friends. Sam’s knowledge of San Francisco was limited
to a drizzly afternoon at the airport, an iron – cold rain and a nasty wind
“You will be a damned fool if you don’t go,” Sam said. that crept under the top coat, clammy and gripping, and he kept quiet
while Reverend Doone reminisced. The missionary was a short man
“I’m thinking about you. You shouldn’t come,” Philip said. “It will be a with a bulbous nose and heavy brows and homesickness written all
bore and a ghastly sight.” over his pallid face.

But Sam Christie’s interest had been piqued and even when he realized Then it was Sam’s turn and he rambled about the places he had seen –
that Philip Latak really did not want him to come he decided that this Greece ans the marble ruins glinting in the sun, the urn; Japan, the
was one party he would not miss. small green country, and the samurai sword. And now, an Ifugao God.

They visited the Mission the following day after having hiked to the Reverend Doone reiterated what Philip had said. “You must
villages. As Philip Latak had warned, their search was fruitless. They understand their religion,” he said, “and if you understand it, then
struggled up terraces and were met by howling dogs and you’ll know why it’s difficult to get this god. Then you’ll know why the
barebottomed children and old Ifugaos, who offered them sweet Ifugaos are so attached to it. It’s a religion based on fear, retribution.
potatoes and rice wine. To all of them Sam Christie was impeccably Every calamity or every luck which happens to them is based on this
polite and charitable with his matches and his candies. And after this relief. A good harvest means the gods are pleased. A bad one means
initial amenity, Philip would start talking and always sullen silence they are angered.”
would answer him, and he would turn to Sam, a foolish, optimistic grin
on his face. “It’s not different from Christianity then,” Sam said. “Christianity is
based on fear, too – fear of hell and final judgment.”
Reverend Doone, who managed the Mission, invited them for lunch.
He was quite pleased to have a fellow American as guest. He was a San Reverend Doone drew back, laid his cup of coffee on the well – worn
table and spoke sternly. “Christianity is based on love. That’s the
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difference. You are in the Agency and you should know the significance Going down the hill, Sam decided to bare his mind to Philip who was
of this distinction.” Reverend Doone became thoughtful again. below him, teetering on the sleepy trail, he said with finality. “Phil, I
“Besides,” he said, “Christianity is based on the belief that man has a must not leave Ifugao without that god. It’s more than just a souvenir.
soul and that soul is eternal.” It will remind me of you, of this place. The samurai sword – you should
have seen the place where I got it and the people I had to deal with to
“What happens when a man loses his soul?” Sam asked. get it. It’s not just some souvenir, mind you. It belonged to a soldier
who had fought in the South Pacific and had managed somehow to
“I wish I could answer that,” Reverend Doone said humbly. “All I can save the thing when he was made prisoner. But his daughter – it’s a
say is that a man without a soul is nothing. A pig in the sty that lives sad story – she had to go to college, she was majoring English and she
only for food. Without a soul...” didn’t have tuition money.”

“Does the Ifugao believe in a soul?” In the comfort of their little room back in the town, Sam brought out
his liquor. “Well,” he said as he poured a glass for Philip. “At least the
Reverend Doone smiled gravely, “His god – he believes in them.” hike did me good. All that walking and all these people – how nice they
were, how they offered us wine and sweet potatoes.”
“Can a man lose his soul?” Sam insisted.
“You get a lot better in cocktail parties,” Philip Latak said. “How many
“You have seen examples,” Reverend Doone smiled wanly. “In the city people in Manila would feel honoured to attend the parties you go to?”
– people are corrupted by easy living, the pleasures of senses and the
flesh, the mass corruption that is seeping into the government and “They are a bore,” Sam said. “And I have to be there – that’s the
everything. A generation of soulless men is growing up and dictating difference. I have to be there to spread sweetness and light.
the future...” Sometimes, it makes me sick, but I have to be there.”

“How can one who loses his soul regain it?” Sam came back with Phil was silent. He emptied the glass and raised his muddy shoes to the
sudden life. woollen sheet on his cot. Toying with his empty glass, he asks the
question Sam loathed most: “Why are you with the Agency, Sam?”
“It takes cataclysm, something tragic to knock a man back to his wits,
to make him realize his loss...” He did not hesitate. “Because I have to be somewhere, just as you have
to be somewhere. It’s that simple.”
“They are all human beings. But look what is in this mountain – locked
country. It is poor – let there be no doubt about it. They don’t make “I’m glad you are in the Agency, Sam. We need people like you.”
enough to eat. But there is less greed here and pettiness here. There
are no land – grabbers, no scandals.” Sam emptied his glass, too, and sank into his cot. Dust had gathered
outside. Fireflies ignited the grove of pine on the ledge below the
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house and farther, across the creek, above the brooding terraces, the the strips of slippery earth that formed the terrace embankment, in
stars shone. jumping across the conduits of spring water that continuously gushed
from springs higher up in the mountain to the terraces. When they
After a while Philip Latak spoke again: “We will be luckier tomorrow, I reached the village many people had already gathered and on the crest
know. You’ll have your god, Sam. There’s a way. I can steal one for of the hill, on which the old man’s house stood, a huge fire bloomed
you.” and the flames crackled and threw quivering shadows upon the betel
palms. In the orange light Sam, could discern the unsmiling faces of
Sam stood up and waved his lean hands. “You can’t do that,” he said men carrying spears, the women and the children, and beyond the
with great solemnity. “That’s not fair. And what will happen to you or scattered groups, near the slope, inside a bamboo corral, were about
to the man whose god you will steal?” a dozen squealing pigs, dogs, and goats, all ready for the sacrificial
knife.
“Lots – if you believe all that trash,” Philip said lightly “I’ll be afflicted
with pain, same with the owner. But he can always make another. It’s Philip Latak acknowledged the greetings, then breaking away from the
not so difficult to carve a new one. I tried it when I was young, before tenuous groups, he went to his grandfather’s hut. Waiting outside, Sam
I went to the Mission.” heard the same words of endearment. A pause, then the wooden door
opened and Philip peeped out. “It’s okay, Sam. Come up.”
“You cannot steal a god, not even for me,” Sam said.
And Sam, pleased with the prospect of being inside an Ifugao house for
Philip laughed. “Let’s not be bull – headed about this. It’s the least I can the first time, dashed up the ladder.
do for you. You made this vacation possible and that raise. Do you
know that I have been with the Agency for four years and I never got a The old man really looked ancient and, in the light of the stove fire that
raise until you came?” lived and died at one end of the one – room house, Sam could see the
careworn face, stoic and unsmiling. Sam took in everything; the hollow
“You had it coming. It’s that simple.” cheeks, the white, scraggly hair, the horn hands and the big – boned
knees. The patriarch was half – naked like the other Ifugaos, but his
“You’ll have your god.” Philip Latak said gravely. loin cloth had a belt with circular bone embellishments and around his
neck dangled a necklace of bronze. To Sam the old man extended a
They did not have supper at the boarding house because in a while bowl of rice wine and Sam took it and lifted it to his lips, savoured the
Sadek arrived to fetch them. He wore an old straw hat, a faded flannel gentle tang and acridness of it.
coat and old denim pants. “The butchers are ready and the guests are
waiting and Grandfather has opened his wine jar.” He then sat down on the mud – splattered floor. Beyond the open
door, in the blaze of the bonfire, the pigs were already being butchered
The hike to the village was not difficult as it had been the previous day. and someone had started beating the gongs and their deep, sonorous
Sam had become an expert in scaling the dikes, in balancing himself on whang rang sharp and clear above the grunts of the dying animals.
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the boarding house. No, he did not need any guide. He knew the way,
The light in the hut became alive again and showed the artefacts having gone through the route thrice. But Sadek would not let him go
within: an old, gray pillow, dirty with use, a few rusty – tipped spears, alone and, after more senseless palaver, Sam finally broke away from
fish traps and a small wooden trunk. The whole house smelled of filth, the party and headed for the town with Sadek behind him.
of chicken droppings, and dank earth, but Sam Christie ignored these
smells and attended only to the old man, who had now risen, his bony The night was cool, as all nights in the Ifugao country are and that
frame shaking, and from a compartment in the roof, brought out his evening, as he lay on his cot, he mused. In his ears the din of gongs still
black and ghastly – looking god, no taller than two feet, and set it rang, in his mind’s eye loomed the shrunken, unsmiling face of the
before the fire before his grandson. Ifugao. He saw again the dancers, their brown, sweating bodies
whirling before the fire, their guttural voices rising as one, and finally,
Someone called at the door and thrust to them a wooden bowl of the wooden god, dirty and black and drenched with blood. And
blood. Philip Latak picked it up and gave it to the old man, who was recalling all this in vivid sharpness, he thought he smelled, too, that
kneeling. Slowly, piously, the old man poured the living, frothy blood peculiar odour of blood and the dirt of many years that had gathered
on the idol’s head and the blood washed down the ugly head to its in the old man’s house. Sam Christie went to sleep with the wind
arms and legs, to its very feet and as he poured the blood, in his soughing the pines, the cicadas whirring in the grass.
crackled voice, he recited a prayer.
He had no idea what time it was, but it must have been past midnight.
Philip turned to his American friend and, with usual levity said: “My The clatter woke him up and, without risking, he groped for the
grandfather is thanking his god that I’m here. He says he can die now flashlight under his pillow. He lifted the mosquito net and beamed the
because he has seen me again.” light at the dark from which had paused at the door. It was Philip Latak,
swaying and holding on to a black, bloody mass. Sam let the ray play
Outside, the rhythm of the gongs quickened and fierce chanting on Phil’s face, at the splotch on his breast – the sacrificial blood – and
started, filled the air, the hut, crept under the very skin and into the finally, on the thing.
subconscious. The old man picked up the idol again and, standing, he
returned to its niche. “I told you I’d get it,” Philip Latak said with drunken triumph. “I told
you I’d steal a god,” and staggering forward, he shoved his
“Let’s go down,” Philip said. They made their way to the iron cauldrons, grandfather’s idol at his friend.
where rice was cooking, and to the butcher’s table where big chunks
of pork and dog meat were being distributed to the guests. For some Sam Christie, too surprised to speak, pushed the idol away and it fell
time, Sam Christie watched the dancers and the singers, but the steps with a thud on the floor.
and the tune did not have any variation and soon he was bored –
completely so. The hiking that had preoccupied them during the day “You shouldn’t have done it!” was all he could say.
began to weigh on his spirits and he told Philip Latak who was with the
old man before newly opened wine jar, that he would like to return to
P a g e | 10

Philip Latak stumbled, the flashlight beam still on his shiny, porcine
face. He fumbled with the stub of candle on the table and in a while “Yes,” Sam said. “Take it back.” But there was no conviction in him,
the room was bright. “What a night,” he crowed, heaving himself in his because in the back of his mind he was grateful that Philip Latak had
cot. “No, you don’t have to worry. No one saw me. I did it when all brought him this dirty god, because it was real, because it had
were busy dancing and drinking. I danced a little, too, you know – with significance and meaning and was no cheap tourist bait, such as those
the old man. He is going to give me everything, his terraces, his spears, that were displayed in the hotel lobbies in Manila.
his wine jars. We danced and my legs – they are not rusty at all.”
“I won’t,” Philip said resolutely. “If I do, I’ll look bad. That would be the
Philip Latak stood up and started prancing. death of my grandfather.”

Sam bolted up, too, and held him by the shoulder. “You’ll be waking up “I’ll take it back if you won’t,” Sam said almost inaudibly.
everyone up. Go to bed now and we will talk in the morning.”
“He will kill you.”
Philip Latak sank back on his cot. The air around him was heavy with
the smell of sweat, rice wine, and earth. “He will be surprised,” he “Don’t frighten me.”
repeated. “He will be surprised – and when he does he will perhaps get
drunk and make a new one. Then there will be another feast to “Hell, I’m just stating a fact,” Phil said. “Do you think he would be happy
celebrate the new god – and another god to steal...” to know that his god had been fondled by a stranger?”

“You are lucky to have someone who loves you so much. And you did “It’s no time for jokes,” Sam said, lying down. “That isn’t funny at all.”
him wrong,” Sam said sullenly. He sat on the edge of his cot and looked And in his mind’s resolute eye, there crowded again one irrefrangible
down at the dirty thing that lay his feet. darkness and in it, like a light, was the old man’s wrinkled face, dirtied
with the mud of the terraces, the eyes narrow and gleaming with
“He did himself wrong,” Philip said. “He was wrong in being so attached wisdom, with hate. He wished he knew more about him, for to know
to me who no longer believes in these idols. Sadek – you have seen his him would be to discover this miserly land and the hardiness (or was it
house. It’s different. And not because he has the money to build a foolhardiness?) which it nourished. And it was these thoughts that
different house. It’s because he doesn’t believe in the old things any were rankling his mind when he heard Philip Latak snore, heard his
more. He cannot say that aloud.” Phil whacked his stomach. “Not while slow, pleasant breathing and with his hand, Sam picked up the taper
he lives with a hundred ignorant natives.” and quashed its flame.

“It’s a miserable thing to do,” Sam said. “Take it back tomorrow.” At the same time Sam Christie woke up it was already daylight and the
sun lay pure and dazzling on the rough pine sidings of the room. It was
“Take it back?” Phil turned to him with a mocking leer. “Now, that’s Philip Latak who had stirred him, his voice shrill and grating. Sam
good of you. Hell, after my trouble...”
P a g e | 11

blinked, then sat up and walked to the door, where Philip was talking The next day, Sam Christie idled in the town and developed the
with a boy. acquaintance of the Chief of Police, a small man with a pinched,
anonymous face that gained character only when he smiled, for then
“I’m sorry I woke you up,” he said, turning momentarily to him, “My he bared a set of buckteeth reddened from chewing betel – nut. He
nephew,” a pause. “It’s grandfather.” His voice was no longer drunken. was extremely hospitable and had volunteered to guide him to
“I have to leave you here.” wherever he wanted to hike. They had tried the villages farther up the
mountains. It was early afternoon when they returned and the mist,
“Anything the matter?” white as starch in the sum, had started to crawl again down into town.
The Chief of Police had been very helpful almost to the point of
Philip had already packed his things and the boy held them, the canvas obsequiousness and Sam asked him to come up for a drink. After the
bag and the old suede jacket. “My grandfather is dying, Sam. He Chief had savoured every drop in his glass, he declaimed. “Indeed, I am
collapsed – an attack.” honoured to taste this most wonderful hospitality, which should be
reserved only for important people...”
When Sam found words again, all he could ask was, “Why... how...”
The party could have gone further, but it was at this moment that
“Hell, that should be no riddle,” Philip said. “The feast last night. The Sadek arrived.
dancing and the drinking. It must have been too much for his heart.
And at his age...” Philip’s brother did not waste words. “It’s about my brother,” he said.
He looked down self – consciously at his shoes – they were a trifle big
“I’m sorry...” and Sam saw immediately that the pair was not Sadek’s but Philip’s. He
saw, too, that the jacket which Sadek wore was Philip’s old suede. And
“I’ll be back as soon as I can, but don’t wait, whatever your plans are.” as if Sam’s unspoken scrutiny bothered him, Sadek took the jacket off
and held it behind him.
After the two had gone, Sam returned to the room and picked up the
idol. In the light he saw that the blood had dried and had lost its colour. “How is he?” Sam asked. He did not wait for an answer. “Come, let’s
The idol was heavy, so Sam quickly deduced that it must be made of have a drink.” He held the Ifugao by the arm, but Sadek squirmed free
good hardwood. It was crudely shaped and its proportions were almost from his grasp.
grotesque. The arms were too long and the legs were mere stumps.
The feet, on other hand, were huge. It was not very different, Sam “I still have a half bottle of scotch,” Sam said brightly.
concluded lightly, from the creations of sculptors who called
themselves modernists. And wrapping it up in an old newspaper, he “It’s the best in the world,” Sadek said humbly, but he did not move.
pushed it under his cot near his mud – caked shoes. “Nothing but the best for Americans.”

Sam did not press. “When is Phil coming back?” he asked.


P a g e | 12

Sadek faced the American squarely now. “Mr. Christie, you cannot do
“There was nothing we could do,” Sadek said. He did not face the anything now. You must go back to Manila.” And wheeling round, the
young American and a faraway gaze was in his eyes. “Our Ifugao walked out in the street.
grandfather...”
Sam followed him, rifled by the unexpected show of rudeness. “I
“He is dead?” cannot leave like this, Sadek. I’m sorry about what happened to your
grandfather. In a time of grief I should at least be able to express my...
Sadek nodded. my condolence.”

Sam took the news calmly. He did not find it, its finality, depressing and “You have already done that, sir.”
he was surprised even that the death of someone who was dear to a
friend had not affected him at all. In the back of his mind, he even Sadek paused again. “All right then,” he said sharply. “Do come,” then
found himself thinking that, perhaps, it was best that the old man had softly, supplicatingly, “Please, please don’t think we are being
died, so that his passing would seal, forever, as far as Philip Latak was unreasonable – and don’t make me responsible for what will happen.”
concerned, the family’s concern with the idol’s dubious grace.
Sam Christie was now troubled. “How did the old man die?” That was
“And Phil?” Sam asked. the question he wanted to ask and when he did it seemed as if the
words were strangled from his throat.
“He isn’t going back to Manila,” Sadek said simply, smiling again that
meaningless grin of peasants. Walking slowly, Sadek glanced at the stranger keeping step behind him.
“It happened in the morning after the feast. He had a lot of wine.”
“And why not?”
“Of course, of course,” Sam said. “I saw him gulp it like water. A man
Sadek did not speak. his age shouldn’t have indulged in drinking like he did.”

“Tell me more,” Sam insisted. “Does his decision have something to do “But it wasn’t the drink that did it, sir,” Sadek said emphatically. “It was
with burial customs and all that sort of thing?” the loss of the god. It was stolen.”

“It’s not matter of custom, sir!” “It was not the god,” Sam said aloud and the words were not for Sadek
alone, but for himself that he was not involved, that his hands were
“I must see him.” unsoiled. And a pang of regret, of sadness, touched him. “No,” he said.
“It wasn’t the god. It couldn’t be as simple as that. The liquor, the
dancing, the exertion – these did it.”
P a g e | 13

Sadek did not answer. They went down the incline and at the base of
the terraces the path was wide and level again. Then, softly, “My No answer.
grandfather always love Ip – pig – Philip – more than anyone of us. He
wanted to see Ip – pig before he died. He died in Ip – pig’s arms.” “Phil,” he repeated, raising his voice.

Near the hill on which stood the old man’s house Sadek paused again. “I heard you,” Philip Latak’s reply from within the hut was abrupt and
“We buried him there,” he pointed to a new digging on the side of the gruff.
hill, “and we held another feast this morning. Two feasts in so short a
time. One was a welcome to a youth gone astray, the other a farewell “I thought you would forget. Remember, tomorrow morning, we are
to him who gave us blood in us...” leaving. I’ve already packed and I was waiting. You didn’t even send
word. We will still shop, Phil. And that woven stuff and the utensils –
At the edge of the hilltop the open pits which had served as stoves still do you know if we can get them before we leave tomorrow?”
smoked and the dried blood of the butchered animals stained the
earth. Sadek faced Sam. “My brother... he will not starve here, but he “You can’t mean what you say,” Sam said. “Come on, we still have
will no longer have the pleasures that he knew. Will that be good to many things to do. But if it’s against the custom – that is, if you have to
him, Mr. Christie?” He did not wait for an answer and he droned, “As stay here for more weeks after the burial –“
long as he works... but he is no longer a farmer of course. We are not
learned like him and we have never been to Manila. But my brother...” The words exploded from the hut with a viciousness that jolted Sam:
and, shaking his head as if a great weight had fallen on his shoulders, “Damn it. I’m not coming!” It was no longer voice. It was something
Sadek left the young American. elemental and distressing. “I’m not going back, do you hear? You can
bring the whole mountain with you if you care. The god, my
Now there was nothing to do but go up the Ifugao hut, this flimsy thing grandfather’s god – isn’t it enough payment for your kindness?”
of straw hat had survived all of time’s ravages, this house that was also
granary and altar, which had retained its shape through hungry years The words, their keenness, their meaning, bit deep. “Let us be
and was, as it stood on this patch of earth, everything that endured. reasonable,” Sam said, his voice starting to quiver. “I didn’t want you
to steal the idol, Phil.”
And as he approached it, Sam Christie found himself asking why he was
here, among these primitive monuments, when he could very well be “You would have gotten it anyway,” the voice quieted down, “because
in his apartment in Manila, enjoying his liquor and his books and, you are always curious and determined. I could forgive myself for
maybe, a mestiza thrown in, too. having stolen it, but the old man – he had always been wise, Sam. I
killed him because I wanted to be free from these... these terraces,
“Phil?” Sam Christie stood in the sun, crinkling his brow and wondering because I wanted to be grateful. I killed him who loved me most...” a
if he had spoken a bit too harshly or too loudly to disturb the silence faltering and a stifled sob.
within. “Phil, are you there?”
P a g e | 14

“Don’t blame me Phil.” Sam choked on the words. “I didn’t want to


steal it. Remember, I even wanted to return it? Besides, I could have Sam Christie’s ever – observant eyes lingered on the face. Where he
gone on searching until I found one I could buy...” had seen it before? Was it Greece – or in Japan – or in Siam? The
recognition came swiftly, savagely; with waterly legs and trembling
“That’s it!” the voice within the hut had become a shriek. “That’s it! hands, he stepped down and let the door slide quietly back into place.
You’ll always find a way because you have all the money. You can buy He knew then that Philip Latak really had work to do and it would take
everything, even gods.” some time before he could finish a new god to replace the old one, the
stolen idol which he was bringing home to America to take its place
His face burning with bewilderment and shame, Sam Christie moved among his souvenirs of benighted and faraway places.
towards the ladder. “Phil, let’s talk this over. We are friends, Phil,” he
said in a low, anguished voice. Aguila, Augusto Antonio A., Joyce L. Arriola and John Jack Wigley.
Philippine Literatures: Texts, Themes, Approaches. Espana, Manila:
“You are not a friend,” the voice within the grass hut had become a Univesity of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Print.
wail. “If you are, you wouldn’t have come here searching for gods to Newer Post Older Post Home
buy.” View mobile version
CONTENTS
“We are friends,” Sam insisted, toiling up the ladder and at the top ▼ 2010 (13)
rung, he pushed aside the flimsy bamboo door. ▼ April (13)
My Own Theory of Devolution (Jessica Zafra)
In the semi – darkness, amid the poverty and the soot of many years, The God Stealer (Fransico Sionil Jose)
Sam Christie saw Philip Latak squatting before the same earthen stove The Wedding Dance (Amador T. Daguio)
aglow with embers. And in this glow Sam Christie saw his friend – not Denken Ist Danken: A Tribute To Leonardo R. Estiok...
the Philip Latak with a suede jacket, but a well – built Ifugao attired in Dead Stars (Paz Marquez Benitez)
the simple costume of the highlands, his broad flanks uncovered, and Elements of Chinese Thought in the Filipino Mind (...
around his waist was the black – and – red breech cloth with yellow Mats (Francisco Arcellana)
tassels. From his neck dangled the bronze necklace of an Ifugao May Day Eve (Nick Joaquin)
warrior. Mill of the Gods (Estrella Alfon)
The Sadness Collector (Merlinda Bobis)
Philip Latak did not, even face Sam. He seemed completely absorbed My Father Goes To Court (Carlos Bulusan)
in his work and, with the sharp blade in his hands, he started scraping Woman With Horns (Cecilia Menguera - Brainard)
again the block of wood which he held tightly between his knees. My Brother's Peculiar Chicken (Alejandro R. Roces)...

“Leave me alone, Sam,” Philip Latak said softly, as if all grief had been
squeezed from him. “I have to finish this and it will take time.”

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